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75: True Self-Care: Tending to Community, Ancestry, and Our Nervous Systems with Gabriel Kram

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“We don’t live anymore in a context that’s giving our nervous system the kind of inputs that allow it to optimize wellbeing.”

– Gabriel Kram
Episode #75

Overview

In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

What does it look like to come from a place of wholeness – fully embodied and aligned with our core values? In this episode of What the Fundraising, we start that conversation with an understanding of our nervous systems. Today’s guest, Gabriel Kram, is a convener of The Restorative Practices Alliance, Co-Founder of the Academy of Applied Social Medicine, and Founder and CEO of Hearth Science, Inc. In this conversation, Gabriel explains the powerful benefits of cultivating a state of balance rooted in our thoughts, reactions, and connection with others.

Gabriel walks us through polyvagal theory and breaks down the difference between ventral, sympathetic, and dorsal responses in our bodies. He also uses water in its various states as a powerful visual to help us identify the states (often reactive) in which our bodies are living at any given time. Once we understand this framework, it’s easier to find the right practices to move us towards harmony. There is a process to achieving this balance, and Gabriel has some wonderful tools to help us get started. You won’t be advised simply to be more mindful (which can mean so many things) or told you’ve got to keep your body from being fidgety (nervous systems do that). 

True self-care, explains Gabriel, is about so much more than any particular posture or activity. It’s about a deeper dive into our ancestrally-inspired human responses, deeply embedded traumas that extend well beyond our personal lived experiences,  and the role of social connection in creating safe spaces where we can rest, reset and heal. We wrap up the episode with some actionable tips for coming back to our bodies, and staying there.

EPISODE HIGHLIGHTS

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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

  • Are you in fight, flight, or freeze mode? Struggling to stay focused on your mission? Then you’ll want to check out our sponsor, Neon One, the all-in-one donor management system that keeps small and midsized nonprofits on track with fundraising, communications, events, volunteers and more. You can learn about Neon One’s entire suite of products and services here.
  • Click here to learn much more about Gabriel’s work as a convener at the Restorative Practices Alliance and the many online and other experiences they offer. He also has written a deeply researched and informative book, “Restorative Practices of Wellbeing.”
  • Here is a great chart that shows us hwo to map our own nervous system using the Polyvagal Theory.

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FAVORITE QUOTES

RELATED CONTENT

  • Are you in fight, flight, or freeze mode? Struggling to stay focused on your mission? Then you’ll want to check out our sponsor, Neon One, the all-in-one donor management system that keeps small and midsized nonprofits on track with fundraising, communications, events, volunteers and more. You can learn about Neon One’s entire suite of products and services here.
  • Click here to learn much more about Gabriel’s work as a convener at the Restorative Practices Alliance and the many online and other experiences they offer. He also has written a deeply researched and informative book, “Restorative Practices of Wellbeing.”
  • Here is a great chart that shows us hwo to map our own nervous system using the Polyvagal Theory. 

Get to know Gabriel:

Gabriel is a connection phenomenologist working at the frontiers of ancestral neuro-technology and wellbeing. He is convener of The Restorative Practices Alliance, Co-Founder of the Academy of Applied Social Medicine, and Founder and CEO of Hearth Science, Inc.

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I teach nonprofit fundraisers to bring in more gifts from the RIGHT donors… so they can stop hounding people for money. Fundraising doesn’t have to be uncomfortable.

MALLORY ERICKSON

episode transcript

Mallory Erickson: Welcome everyone. I am so thrilled to be here today with Gabriel Kram. Gabriel, welcome to What The Fundraising.

Gabriel Kram: Mallory, thank you. I’m happy to be here with you. Thanks for the opportunity. 

Mallory Erickson: I am so excited for this conversation. I have to tell you one of my deep, close friends who was at one time a donor of an organization I ran is the one who sent me an article of yours that then sent me on the journey around your work so it all feels just really serendipitous and special that we’re having this conversation today. Why don’t we start with you just giving everyone a little background on you and your work and what brings you to today. 

Gabriel Kram: Thanks, Mallory. So the article that you’re speaking about is an article that we published in Psychology Today. And it’s an article about the Polyvagal Theory, which I feel like we’re gonna talk about probably deeply today. And it was looking at it through the lens of water and this work to bring Neurophysiology through an elemental lens, through the lens of water, which is so fundamental to our experience is emblematic of the kind of work that we do.

So our work it brings together neuroscience. It brings together neurophysiology with ancestral awareness technologies. I have the good fortune to be the founder and CEO of an organization that’s called Hearth Science. Hearth as in fireplace, as in the ancestral center of the village from which we come, a lot of our work is about helping people come home to the fullest, most thriving version of themselves.

And because we’re working often with modern people, that really is looking at the physiological dimension of what that means. I’m excited to have this opportunity to speak with you and to see where our conversation goes. And I’m really here to be useful to you and your audience and excited to explore with you.

Mallory Erickson: Why don’t we start with that piece around fullness and wholeness. Can you talk to me a little bit about what that means for people to lean into that version of themselves and what is typically holding them back or missing for them to be able to realize it? 

Gabriel Kram: That’s a really deep question. We’ve spent the last 25 years leaning into the study of that question. It was a very personal question for me. And it’s been the guiding kind of professional question that our work has emerged from. And I would say that one of our mentors is a woman named Dr. Darcia Narvaez. She’s a transdisciplinary researcher in psychology. She’s one of the world’s leading experts on the relationship between neurobiology and human morality.

And I think the easiest way to answer your question is to defer to her work which really says that small band hunter-gatherers are the baseline of human normalcy. I’m going really here because you asked me to but I will unpack it. So she says, small band hunter-gatherers are the baseline of human normalcy. And what does that mean, given that most modern humans don’t live in that fashion at all? And the reason that she’s saying this is because 95 to 99% of our lineage history, we were living in these small tribal bands. The context in which our brains, our nervous systems, and our biology were optimized was this particular context where we had close reciprocal relations with a small group of people. And we were deeply embedded in the living world. 

And if you look through this lens, what is that modernity as we’re experiencing it over the last 5,000 years has accelerating deviated from that context. And so we don’t live anymore in a context that’s giving our nervous system the kind of inputs that allow it to optimize wellbeing. So to summarize there are two facets of this, those cultures above all things, prize relatedness, they prize connection to ourselves, to one another to the living world. So there’s this connection side of it. And then they have established really profound and regular practices on the healing side.

And so there are two things that prevent us from optimizing that fullest version, experiencing that fullest version of ourselves, one of them is that we don’t understand where wellbeing comes from. And we don’t, therefore, do what’s required to give ourselves the inputs around connection relatedness that would allow us to feel that.

And then we don’t do a very good job of addressing trauma. And trauma in our conceptualization. It’s not just overwhelming events, it’s the trauma of social disconnectedness. It’s the traumas of oppression and it’s the trauma of ecological alienation which is so normalized in our modern culture that people don’t even realize it’s a trauma.

How’s that for a response to you?  

Mallory Erickson: Ooh, wonderful. And there are so many things that I wanna explore that are inside there. So I’m curious around the connectedness piece, what are the implications neurologically to our disconnect? 

Gabriel Kram: That’s an interesting question. The implications directly are that most humans, most modern humans are functioning most of the time in a suboptimal state. That’s one way of saying it, right? If we’re not feeling connected and we don’t have the physiology of connection online and we can specifically about what that physiology entails, but when we’re in a connection state, basically what happens is that the heart is running the brain. We feel safe enough to open into relationship. And there’s a whole set of things that happen in the physiology in terms of how our bodies operate. How it feels to be in our own skin. How we conceive of ourselves. What we’re able to feel and think. How we interpret what’s happening around us. And then how we behave. 

It’s just really profound stack. It’s like a set of lenses, it’s like glasses you can’t take off, your physiological state called autonomic state. And so when you’re not running that system your body is in some kind of a defensive state. And there are only so many ways it can go, but it’s either gonna go to a high defensive state, which is a fight or flight state, some form of that. Or it’s gonna go to a dorsal state, a paralysis a shutdown kind of state, or some hybrid of those.

And so those are distinct states and they have their own kind of distinct architecture in the ways that they shape our physiology, our awareness, our interpretation, all of these levels. But basically, we’re not going to be able to bring our full potential forward. 

Mallory Erickson: Can we talk about that dorsal state in particular, because as you’re talking, I’m thinking about the relationship between fundraisers and donors in particular, and what happens when fundraisers aren’t able to show up in their wholeness to their work. And what’s interesting to me about it is that their work is fundamentally relational, right? You would consider it to be perhaps at first glance, or if you don’t know a lot about what it’s like to actually be a fundraiser, a highly relational and connected role.

But because I believe fundraisers are taught more and more ways to be disconnected from their wholeness. They are operating in a role that looks relational but without their wholeness so they’re not getting the connection that you’re talking about. And what I see from a pattern perspective in the folks that I work with is a lot of what I think is this dorsal response that you’re talking about.

So can you talk more about that and what that then does to our sort of decision-making and perspective? 

Gabriel Kram: Yeah, absolutely. So let me first map out the theory through the lens of water, which I think gives your audience the most accessible way to understand this viscerally because I want people to feel it. The analogy that I like to give is to invite people to imagine that you’ve never been to earth before, you’ve never experienced water at all. You’re drinking a glass right now. So you’re drinking water. So Mallory is my trusted guide here, I’ve never been to earth before and she takes out a glass and she’s showing me liquid water. I’ve never seen it, never experienced it all. She says this is water. And I look at it and she pours some over my hand. And then she says, here, you can drink some. I drink it. It’s cool. It’s wet. It’s nourishing. It feels a certain way going down my throat. And she goes, okay, this is water. 

And then let’s say, Mallory, takes me into the kitchen. And she has a teapot on the stove. And turns on the stove and I can’t see inside it, I’m just watching this metal pot. And then all of a sudden this hot fog starts coming out of it. And I with her encouragement put my hand into it and I pull my hand back cause it’s hot, it’s wet, burns my fingers. And I look at it for a minute. It’s rising up in the air and I say Mallory, what is that? And she says, that’s water. And I think my proposal to you and to your audience is that if I hadn’t watched that transition between those two states, I wouldn’t believe they were the same thing because they have completely different properties.

There’s a threshold across which that substance transforms. And it becomes something else. And water has a third state. So if we were to go outside and winter and you would take me out to a lake or something that was frozen and get down on our hands and knees and I were to touch the ice, feel it right. It’s solid. It’s very cold. It has again properties that are completely different than both liquid water and steam. 

So the analogy to polyvagal theory basically says that your autonomic nervous system, which is functionally the architecture of your mind-body connection. And I’m gonna say that one more time because I don’t think people fully understand this. This is really important. The autonomic nervous system is the architecture of your mind-body connection. So it’s the shaper of that relationship. It can exist in one of three primary states. If we extend the analogy, we say that the connection state, the state we’re talking about that state of optimal well-being is the liquid water state.

And when our nervous system is in that state, there’s a certain way that it feels to be in the body. There’s a certain sense of ourselves that we have. There’s a certain access to feelings and thoughts. There’s a certain way that we interpret the world around us and behaviors available to us. And when it shifts out of that, it either is gonna shift into a high-energy state that’s like a steam state, or it’s gonna shift into an ice state. 

Now the way that this is classically taught in trauma healing modalities is that when we feel unsafe we’ll often first go to the steam state. Steam has two flavors. Steam can either be high energy. It’s fight or flight, which means it can either confront a threat or try to get away from it. And again, the way this is classically taught is if neither of those strategies work, we will go into the ice state or shut down, which is technically called the dorsal vagal state. 

And the interesting thing about it is that often the thing that puts someone in a dorsal state is when they can’t get, and I wanna be very considerate of your listeners because there may be like associations that are forming to other experiences they’ve had beyond fundraising. So I invite them just to be gentle with themselves as they’re hearing this information. But in the context of fundraising, it’s if you’re in a meeting and something starts to make you uncomfortable, but you can’t leave because you have a professional duty to be there. But part of yourself isn’t getting to be present, isn’t gonna show up, it’s not hard to imagine that you shut down. 

So the first part is understanding kinda this map. And if I were to describe the attributes of that shutdown state, is that useful for people? It’s a paralysis state, it’s the oldest survival strategy embedded in human biology. It goes back 400 million years and the whole idea was to make yourself socially invisible. It’s a death-fainting state, and it’s most extreme examples it’s accompanied by the release of endogenous opiates. It’s like your body thinks it’s gonna die. And so it starts to release painkillers, which is a grace because if you’re gonna get eaten by a tiger, you don’t wanna be there. But it’s not an embodied state, it’s a doorway. It’s a dissociative state, right, if it’s coupled with pressure, it’s the doorway to dissociate. 

And so there’s a thing about, I think the part of the goal that I’m hearing in your work and this work that you’re engaged in is how people bring the fullness of themselves back into the room. And I think it’s important to understand that when we start shutting down, there’s an experience of paralysis. There’s an experience of being stuck. As it gets more intense, people start to describe things as being like surreal or dream-like if it gets strong enough. But this continuum from just feeling I don’t really feel myself. I don’t really, it’s like a frozen kind of experience. I hope that gives like some kind of flavor for it. 

Mallory Erickson: Yeah. As you were talking, I so appreciate the way you laid it out with the water. Because it also made me realize that I actually think we see the steam a lot in nonprofit fundraising, too, what it tends to look like. And I’d be curious if this feels like it might be true is the overdrive state of lots and lots of different fundraising activities.

We justify it as diversifying our fundraising revenue, but actually what’s often happening is this very scattered fundraising approach where they are doing 10 to 15 different types of fundraising things, constantly context switching, keeping themselves very busy, but not particularly productive. And the action in the activity I believe it soothes a sense of anxiety that they feel. But it’s not fully embodied because it’s not connected to activities that are actually going to be the most impactful for the organization. Because I think the activities that are gonna be the most impactful to the organization are much scarier and more vulnerable and involve potential rejection.

And so we tend to see fundraisers stay in this very busy state of fundraising activities that are farther removed in fact, from deep connection. What do you think about that? Does that even make sense? 

Gabriel Kram: It makes sense. I don’t have enough expertise in fundraising per se to validate it, based on my experience in the sector but the description of the energy feels right to me. And what I can say from my own experience, in my own work, because there are times when I’m working with clients or prospective clients that vulnerability of making a call to someone who you’re asking for help, basically like the job is to ask. If you’re in sales, if you’re in fundraising, you’re constantly opening vulnerably to ask for help. And then there’s a possibility of rejection. And there’s a possibility not only of rejection, but it could be very with respect or it could be like a horrible experience. 

And so I notice just in myself, there are times when rather than doing that because the place in which I have to be in myself in order to do that and stay centered requires a certain amount of work effort. And so sometimes it’s easier to stay in other activities that kind of match the energy that you’re talking about seeing in fundraisers. So that’s my experiential touchpoint into what you’re describing.  

And I know for myself, yeah, like it’s easier to be in that kind of high-energy state. A characteristic, there are a few characteristics, it’s just of the energy signature of a sympathetic state. It’s high energy is one of them, it’s mobilized. There’s a lot of movement. That’s a physiological characteristic of that state. And it’s actually really interesting, part of my own research and background was in the intersection between neurophysiology and mindful awareness. And part of the drivers of our research were that we were working with populations and we were finding certain kinds of meditative practice didn’t actually meet their needs. And it’s partly this because when you’re in a sympathetic state, the body is mobilized and being still doesn’t feel good. So the body would rather move around, do almost anything than contact what’s actually arising at a felt level. 

Mallory Erickson: Okay. I have to reel myself in from all the directions I wanna take this. But I wanna actually double-click on the phrase you just said around feel good because I wanna talk about discomfort and pleasurable or unpleasurable emotional experiences and whether or not there’s a way to navigate those and stay in a liquid state.

Gabriel Kram:  That’s a great question. I’m gonna tell you what’s coming to mind. So I got back into playing tennis after 25 years, I had played competitively when I was younger and then I stopped. And my daughter picked it up and then I started playing with her and I couldn’t remember why I’d stopped cause I love it. And then there was a moment where I started to play a little bit more competitively and my body did this thing where it went into a shutdown. And I had to go, okay what happened when I was 18? And I stopped playing tennis and there was a whole backstory behind it that I don’t think it’s super relevant to get into. But what I started to realize is that there are certain activities that I think of as being amplification windows for tracking your own state. 

And what I mean is that the difference between playing really well and having everything feel off is sometimes very subtle. And you can see this if you’re watching a high level, it doesn’t have to be tennis it could be basketball, it could be any kind of elite athletics. When you’re working at a high level where there is both. When you’re let’s say you’re playing because play is actually a hybrid state. Play is sympathetic and it’s connection. It’s ventral and sympathetic both because, and I think it’s important for people to understand. Even just to stand up, I need sympathetic activity. Like your body is constantly in modulating these states, right?

The very foundation of what’s called heart rate variability respiratory sinus arrhythmia is that your heart accelerates when you inhale and it decelerates when you exhale. Which is why when someone’s getting ready to sprint or fight they’ll often inhale intensely. And it’s why yoga practices will tell you to extend an acceleration because your nervous system on the inhale is accelerating, that’s sympathetic. On the exhale, it’s decelerating, that’s parasympathetic, hopefully ventral. And so your body is like constantly negotiating these states. 

So at one level to answer your question, how do you stay in a ventral state when there’s discomfort is that you call online enough ventral energy so that even when the sympathetic is activated, you still are in that play space. And this is a cultivation process that we can actively unconsciously engage in. And you’ll see people falling out of that state. It’s very apparent with high-level athletics. And tennis is an interesting example because it’s a one-on-one thing. And so in a team sport, you can lean on your team, but tennis is if you get thrown off of your balance and you’ll see people like erupt into anger, where they lose the ventral and if they can’t reign it back, the momentum and a match can completely change.

So I think there are these activities, these kind of amplification windows where you get to watch your nervous system very closely. And I think speaking about it in the context of fundraising, you can make fundraising your context for watching your own nervousness for tracking it. And it’s like, how do you help people get ventral resource. And then their first question is always a mindfulness awareness. How do you notice when you don’t have it? And then how do you get back to it? 

And just a very simple example of this, for myself, once a friend of mine pointed this out I realized if I was too sympathetic, one of the things I could do was hold a tennis ball in my hand and feel the texture of its surface. Because if you’re not in an eventual state, you don’t have access to that kind of nuanced appropriate exception. If stroke your own face or something, like there’s all these things that you can only feel when you’re connected eventually. And so I would do that with myself. I would just take the ball and I would soften my palm until I could feel the texture again. And that was the way of calling my ventral system online. 

And our work is basically built around hundreds of exercises. These are neural exercises. This is what we do, we help people develop a vocabulary of specific neural exercises that can address the specific ways that their systems outta balance. There are hundreds of ways to do this, but it’s that cultivation. So it’s a tracking exercise. It’s knowing where you are on this map. Am I drifting into steam? Am I drifting into ice? And then once I see okay, where am I? What are the ways that I know how to get myself back out?

Mallory Erickson: I love that. Why is it that we often have a lot of resistance to doing the things that bring us back into our bodies?

Gabriel Kram: That’s a really profound question and I immediately can see between 3 and 5 layers of answer. And I think I’m probably missing another 10 or 15. Some of the answer and I’m sure that I’m gonna miss some things that are really foundational here. But some of the answer is that the culture is functioning in a sympathetic state. The cultural field in modernity is already steam. This is actually really important. And it’s really problematic because ancestral culture had restorative practices built into it that brought people out of steam and back into water.

And we don’t have those as a culture, so it’s like you look around everybody else is in. There’s one layer of it. That’s like that there’s one layer of it which is that states they have a momentum already to themselves. So when you’re in a sympathetic state, you crave coffee. And this has to do with stress physiology is in that the stress response is designed to come on briefly and moments of need and then attenuate.  Only when it starts to become chronic, it’s not attenuating. And so when it becomes enduring, then your blood chemistry changes and your blood starts craving things to maintain that state. What does it crave? It craves salt and fat and sugar and all the things that you’re not supposed to eat, caffeine. The times that I most wanna drink coffee are when I’m raising money. Like when we’re in the middle of a funding round, I find myself like reflexively drinking coffee cuz it’s so high intensity. So there’s a momentum intrinsic to the state. 

And then I think the other thing is I think there’s grief here as well. I think there’s something about we don’t have a context where our culture knows how to grieve and mourn. And a lot of this stuff is it’s upsetting and sad, and we’re damaged by these things. We’re harmed by these interactions. And so there’s a way in which we don’t have the kind of social safety and social support where we can come home. Again, in nonprofit culture, I know very few cultures where there was a context in a fundraising team where somebody could go back and weep about an interaction that was harmful. It’s just not the way that the culture is created in most organizations. There’s not even an awareness that it would be a good idea to do that. So there’s not a safety organizationally. There’s not a context for grieving and so people just soldier on, I think. 

Mallory Erickson: I think that that piece around the society is in steam is such an important piece. And it’s related to something I had been personally grappling with a lot over the last maybe year or two, which is we’ve watched the self-help, quote, unquote industry explode. And I have found myself really struggling to find practices that actually felt good to me when I was absorbing the modern-day culture’s recommendations.

And I even said this on another episode, I texted one of my best friends a few months ago and said, how do you relax? Because I feel like I am trying all these things and I’m not necessarily feeling the way it’s being marketed that I will feel now. Of course, I understand that’s a marketing strategy, but I think what you just said is really blowing my mind around the fact that self-care strategies provided by steam will keep you in steam.

Gabriel Kram: Yes. 

Mallory Erickson: It’s rattling my thinking around this what you said about ancestral communities is providing experiences and opportunities to go back into our water state and those not exist. And not that they never exist. I have had spaces and yoga teachers and classes that have created those spaces. I think for me, I’ve created those spaces for myself in my home and with my partner, but the mass energy around wellness that we’re seeing balloon into a market, into an industry most of that, I think and I’m curious what you think is just more steam.

Gabriel Kram: Yeah, this is, we’re in importantly deep territory here. So I agree with your analysis. There was a point where we stopped calling our work self-care because at some profound reality what the polyvagal theory teaches us is that human wellbeing is it’s social in nature. We don’t do self-care. We do community care. We do reciprocal relationship. 

And I would say that polyvagal theory is just actually the tip of the iceberg in terms of what indigeneity and ancestral lifeways teach us, which is that wellbeing is not merely social because that’s still anthropic-centric. It’s relational to the living world, to the ecology, to place, to the elemental reality of being on earth where we co-breed with the trees that are around. The entire structure of reality that we’re in is providing a possibility for relatedness that most modern people are completely alienated from. 

I wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times the other day because there was an article that was in there on meditation and being fidgety. And it was basically saying oh, it’s okay. Even if you’re fidgety, still do your meditation. And I wrote to them and I just said, listen, I’m not saying that mindful awareness isn’t valuable because it’s really important. But the thing that’s not being articulated here is that a lot of people are fidgety not because there’s something intrinsically wrong with them, but because their nervous systems are highly activated because of trauma. And because of this kind of constant state of threat that we find ourselves under. And so if we don’t actually attend to that threat, and we don’t attend to the nervous system states it generates, then you’re giving people really bad advice. 

And the reality is that when your system is in steam, there are certain kinds of inputs that are relevant to it that are different than if it’s already settled. And forgive me, my critique of the mindfulness movement in the United States is that it doesn’t seem to understand that the context out of which these practices originated ancestrally were cultures that were very much in the pace of the living world. They were very settled, and so bringing attention deeply inward when you’re settled is a great idea. But if you’re not settled, it’s not actually useful necessarily, and can be highly contraindicated in certain states.

And so the way that we in the self-care world talk to people about deploying their attention or engaging in certain practices doesn’t take into account that when your nervous system is in a distressed state, when it’s steam or when it’s ice. There are very specific kinds of inputs that are required to shift that state. And again, this is why we developed our work. This is the nature of our work. I’ve been studying this transdisciplinary through 6 lenses for 25 years. We have a faculty of 60 people around the world, including 25 different lineages of healing, including 25 different cultures, because the work has already been done it just hasn’t been assembled in a way that modern people can assimilate. 

When you’re in a steam state, you need something that meets you where you are, and it can help you shift down out of that. But if it doesn’t start by meeting you where you are, it’s not gonna be useful. And the characteristics of that state or that it’s mobilized, and that your attention is focused on identifying the source of a threat. And so if a practice can’t address those two things, you’re not gonna be able to connect into it. And you’re gonna end up feeling like, oh, I’m not good at this. That was not productive or I failed or something.

Mallory Erickson: Can you give us an example of a practice that would tap into those? 

Gabriel Kram: There’s so many things I can give you, it’s more useful I think to give you some principles. So if the state is we wanna start out by allowing the body to move. And so you talked about like yoga, right? Or you talked about chi gong or dance, or I’ve gone through periods in time when the energy moving through my body was so intense that even though I have meditated for close to 30 years, I couldn’t meditate cause my body wouldn’t sit still. So if you’re trying to harness that kind of mobilized energy, it’s a good idea to do it through movement.

There’s another characteristic of the steam the defensive states generally but particularly sympathetic states, which is that part of their design is to identify the source of the threat. And so the eyes are actively trying to figure out what is it that’s making me feel uncomfortable. So allowing the eyes to rest on something, we do a very simple practice called orientation, which comes out of these somatically informed trauma therapeutic modalities. And it’s just letting the eyes go where they want to go. It’s using non-directive attention visually and doing it in a place where there are things that you enjoy looking at. Because the eyes, unlike some of the other senses will settle into something they’re enjoying. 

And so you’re addressing, you’re giving this body this opportunity to allow this it’s technically called a neuro septic process. It’s a non-cognitive neural evaluation of safety or danger, but you’re letting the eyes do this thing that they want to do anyway in that state. But if they’ll settle on something that they enjoy looking at and then you allow that to become a doorway and to feeling the body. They’ve found something that they like and that can open the door to sensation in a way that’s settling to your nervous system. Does that make sense?  What we’re doing is we’re working with neural inputs through the different sensory channels, properception these different kind of gateways in the body, but we’re taking into account where we are starting in terms of these different states.

Mallory Erickson: I really appreciate that. And I really appreciate the piece you were saying at the beginning of that around meeting yourself where you’re at. I think a lot of times we revert to beating ourselves up for the energy we have when it’s not the energy we wanna be bringing to that moment. I remember for me for a long time speaking, a lot of the advice I had been given when I would go public speak was around calming myself down before I walked on stage. And I always felt like I was in this battle with myself before I’d walk on stage until I finally realized that I need to dance my brains out.  

And now that I do that, I have three songs, I play them every time. The people I speak for a lot are always like, okay, Mallory, go do your dances. But it completely changed everything for me. And so I think just this awareness of where we’re at and what we need, and that maybe the people who are giving me that advice calming down was helpful for them for some reason. Maybe they were in a different space before they walked on stage and they did need those breathing tools and practices. But for me, it wasn’t what I needed. And so I just, I really appreciate that piece. Will you give us a similar type of example for when we’re in that is it dorsal state, the ice state?

Gabriel Kram: Sure. Yeah. Let me comment just first. I love your story cause it’s like you found the medicine that works, you found the way to work with that energy because you can tell yourself cognitively oh, calm down, but you’re going in from an audience like your body’s having its own response to that. And you figured out a way to harness instead of suppress that energy. And I would propose probably after you do that, you bring your full vitality to you’re speaking. Whereas if you’re like doing something to top-down, calm yourself, your breath. You’re actually suppressing the bodily knowing that’s there. And I bet you probably didn’t enjoy speaking as much when you did that 

Mallory Erickson: 100%, absolutely.

Gabriel Kram: So it’s beautiful. It’s like you found the restorative practice, you found the antidote that gave you the full vitality that you needed in that moment. I love that story, so good for you. That’s very cool. And I think it’s also this beautiful thing where like you said, for somebody, yeah, that may have worked. But if we think of ourselves and our nervous systems as this droplet of water. And the goal is to keep moving more of it into the liquid state, but most people are carrying some percentage of steam and some percentage of ice.

And so based on your history and everything you’ve been through and what matters and what’s meaningful to you, that combination of the balancing and the restoration is gonna be different. Most people, I don’t know, modern people when they’re presenting often are thinking. I don’t want to be thinking when I’m presenting, I want to be presenting and connecting and contacting, that’s a very different place to speak from. And so the way I’d prepare for that is very different than if I was gonna recite something that I had memorized. It’s a much more embodied thing. 

Okay. So you asked about the dorsal state. And so again, let me just talk about at the level of principles. What dorsal means in the body is that we’re in an overwhelmed state. It’s what it means. And because it’s this responsive last resort and I wanna be clear that if people are like a blank slate, what we often see is that someone would try to respond through connection to something. And then if they couldn’t do that and get safe, they would go into fight or flight. And if they couldn’t do that and get safe, they would go into dorsal. That’s called Jack Sonia solution, technically, which is the order that they happen in a let’s say a blank slate, nervous system. But the reality is that nobody’s nervous system is a blank slate and that we tend to have a pattern for how we respond to stress.

And if we’ve gone dorsal a lot in the past, it doesn’t take a full life threat to get us dorsal that can become a go-to response. I think there’s something very interesting right now that we’re studying in our work because the classic idea.

And when I say classic, I’m talking about in the somatically oriented trauma therapies for the last 20 years has been that you come out of dorsal and sometimes you’ll come back into sympathetic because often that was a state that just preceded it. And while I think this is often true. I think it’s more true for men than it is for women. And I think there are a couple of different doorways out of this. 

So let me describe the state. Because dorsal is an overwhelmed state when someone’s trying to come out of it, what’s often really useful is to have no additional information coming in. And so it’s like, I think of cocooning yourself or like being in a place where you’re totally safe. You don’t have to think about it. You can curl up in a ball. It’s my experience of coming out of dorsal state is that when you start to contact a dorsal state and actually feel it’s so uncomfortable. Because these are states where the breathing will shut down. It’s profoundly uncomfortable to make visceral contact with a dorsal state which is why people will leave. 

But again, I wouldn’t recommend that people try this with a full-fledged dorsal state on their own, but I’m just mapping the physiology here. It was a deep diving reflex in these creatures. And the breathing shuts down and the dorsal system is in the guts primarily. And so that kind of shut down when people are starting to come out of it, will be a return to gut motility sometimes like the start to burp or fart, to feel that movement again. But this idea that you wanna really minimize stimulation. And if someone’s trying to help you come out of dorsal the less that they’re doing, it’s like presence without pressure. Even looking someone in the eye when they’re dorsal can be overwhelming on they’re receiving it. 

We’ve done some coaching with physicians around this because physicians sometimes when they give a diagnosis if it’s a serious diagnosis, the patient will go dorsal. And if they don’t understand what the subjective experience of that is, right? If somebody goes into a dorsal state, their cognition is completely offline. They’re thinking it’s not there. They can’t process information coming in to have somebody standing over them is totally overwhelming. It’s a primal shutdown state, and again it happens on a continuum. But when we’re in a meeting and we start to feel trapped, that’s a good signal that’s coming on. And again bringing it into a context of a meeting, there’s often a moment in my experience where you’re sitting with a funder. Your body might go, I wanna get outta here. And if you suppress that instinct, your body’s likely to go dorsal, cuz we can override our own instinct to flee. And the thing that I say to people like I don’t, forgive me, my focus is on sovereignty and people’s wellbeing.

So if that’s happening, so my thing is find a reason to let your body do what it’s telling you it needs to do. And you’re like, oh, I gotta attend to this thing. Find a reason to leave the room. I need to go to the restroom, whatever it is, say it however you need to say it, but let your body get outta the room and let yourself feel yourself leaving. Because often allowing the body to do that exit, like sometimes you don’t even know why you want to get away, but if you have that felt sense like I want to get out of here, find a way to let your body. Because if you honor that it will restore the body’s sense of agency. And then you come back into the room and you go to the bathroom. You go, what is happening for me? Why am I feeling like this? But you restore the body’s participation in the process, and then you can come back or not. 

Mallory Erickson: I love that advice. I love that advice. Okay. I could probably spend the next 10 hours asking you questions. But I wanna be mindful of your time. Thank you so much for this conversation today. Will you tell everyone where they can find you, learn more about your work, interact with and learn from more of the tools that your team is putting out in the world? 

Gabriel Kram: Yeah, sure. Thanks Mallory. So we have a book out that’s called Restorative Practices of Wellbeing. I spent a long time working on this for 20-something years. And that’s a great way for people to get familiar with the approach how we think about it. That book is actually the analog app to a learning platform that we’ve spent many years developing with an extraordinary team. And that is at restorativepractices.com. A lot of our work is focused on working with clinicians and wellness professionals. There’s also a list of providers that work with our platform there. And yeah. We welcome your audience. We have online courses that we teach. We do all kinds of stuff. Our faculty is absolutely extraordinary and transdisciplinary neurophysiology ancestral awareness, mindful awareness, deep nature connection, anti-racist practice, and cultural linguistics. These are the areas we’re focused on. 

Mallory Erickson: Amazing. Thank you so much. 

Gabriel Kram: My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity. Really nice to talk to you.

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